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In India’s Assam, Lawyers Needed to Fight Statelessness

ASSAM, India – When Afzal Ali stood in line in front of government officials on Saturday morning, he held on to a bunch of papers, and some hope. The papers proved his identity as an Indian citizen, and hope kept him going through months of uncertainty. Minutes later, both were deemed insufficient, Devex reported Friday.
Ali was one of 1.9 million people excluded from the final National Register of Citizens, or NRC, which was released last week in the north-eastern state of Assam, India.
The NRC is aimed at weeding out those who have immigrated there illegally, to produce a definitive list of Indian citizens in Assam, for which 32.9 million people had applied to be included. The burden of proof is on the citizens who have to show that their predecessors were either born in India or legally migrated there, entering India before March 24, 1971 — days before Bangladesh was declared independent from Pakistan.
But in many cases, including Ali’s, the documents provided were not proof enough.
“Twenty people from my family have been left off the NRC. We have documents that prove that my grandfather lived in Assam legally in 1934. He died here too. What else do I need to prove my Indian-ness? Where will we go now?” Ali told Devex in Khandikar village in Baksa. Ali’s family had been excluded from the draft list published last year. But since then, he had dug out more proof from the past — documents that showed his grandfather was included in the 1951 NRC — giving him some optimism about the future.
“Maybe I’ll check online and the result will be different,” he said.
While the Indian government has assured that being excluded from the list does not immediately amount to statelessness, 1.9 million people will now have to challenge their exclusion in special quasi-judicial courts set up for the purpose, called Foreigners Tribunals, within the next four months.
However, this will require hundreds of lawyers who are trained and are able to support people through the byzantine process — something experts say the legal system in Assam is not ready for. Additionally, most people excluded from the list are poor, making it impossible for them to spend on lawyers’ fees and court costs.
Allegations of discrimination can be traced back to the genesis of the NRC — in 1985, after violent anti-immigrant protests, the Assam government agreed to declare anyone who had entered the state after March 24, 1971, as a foreigner. Both Hindus and Muslims had entered Assam through neighbouring Bangladesh in the early 1970s. While protests of the 1980s targeted Bengalis as an ethnic minority, the current political scenario in the country further discriminates against Muslims.
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A minister from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has called Muslims who have migrated from Bangladesh “infiltrators” and “termites”, alleging that they entered India illegally and “are eating our foodgrains that should go to the poor, they are taking away our jobs” — and must be removed through the NRC.
The decades-long process culminated with the release of the final NRC list on Aug. 31, leaving those like Afzal Ali wondering if they had been targeted.
“This is communal. We feel stuck — what if my papers are declared insufficient at the Foreigners Tribunal too? Why is India treating us like outsiders?” Ali asked.
For ensuring that his case is treated fairly, Ali will need to rely on the legal system. Aman Wadud, a Guwahati-based lawyer says without dedicated lawyers, Foreigners Tribunals won’t be able to ensure justice.
(Sahar News Monitoring Desk)

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